ORLANDO, Fla. – As rumors of a possible sale of United Launch Alliance reach fever pitch, the company's CEO sees the successful inaugural launch of its Vulcan rocket as a vindication of the company's technology and transformation.
Speaking at a SpaceCom conference here on Jan. 31, ULA CEO Torey Bruno said the long-delayed maiden flight of the Vulcan Centaur rocket on Jan. 8 went very well, with no problems reported during the countdown or after liftoff.
“That was a perfect mission,” he said of the launch, which placed Astrobotic's Peregrine lunar lander on a highly elliptical transition orbit around the moon. “Dead nominal flight throughout, inserting bullseye at the end.”
This was in contrast to the reputation of first launches of new vehicles, which historically had high failure rates. “I've done about thirty initial launches, and usually one of two things happens: it either explodes or there are major anomalies in flight,” he said. “I have never seen a first launch as clean as Vulcan.”
He attributed this to ULA's approach to designing the missile. “You can fly, fail, and fix; there's nothing wrong with that,” he said. Instead, ULA followed “a rigorous design process: List your failures in ground tests, put them in the computer, put them in the simulation lab, and then put them on paper. That's the way it's done and my teammates did a great job.
Another factor, he said, was the transformation of the company he led after joining the company in 2014. He described the company at the time as experiencing a crisis, having lost access to the Russian-made RD-180 engines used by the Atlas 5 missiles after Russia's annexation. In Crimea as well as competition from SpaceX, which sued the US Air Force for access to national security launches that ULA then had a monopoly on.
“The company in this situation might go bankrupt. In fact, most of them do,” Bruno said. He took several actions to turn the company around, ranging from cutting costs and changing the company's product line to more commercial approaches and accepting that it would have to compete. “The plan was “It is that we will shrink, become competitive, and then we will grow.”
This approach, which included laying off a third of the company’s workforce while investing in Vulcan’s development, was key to winning the largest share of National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 contracts in 2020. “That saved us. Now we will not stop working.”
High energy future
The future of ULA has been the subject of widespread industry debate. The company is currently jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, having been formed as a joint venture between those companies' launch businesses in 2006. However, Boeing and Lockheed have been considering proposals to sell ULA.
Industry sources say a ULA sale could happen as soon as this month. The main potential buyers are Blue Origin, which is developing the competing New Glenn launch vehicle but also supplies BE-4 engines for ULA's Vulcan, and private equity fund Cerberus Capital Management. Defense contractor Textron has also been linked to these sale discussions but is rumored to no longer be in the works.
Bruno did not address the potential sale of ULA in his remarks. However, some attendees privately noted that the speech contained elements of a pitch the company might make to potential buyers, focusing on its turnaround and capabilities, perhaps suggesting they retain him as CEO after the sale.
For example, Bruno claimed that the company was uniquely positioned to serve national security markets with its “high-energy” Vulcan vehicle. “When Atlas lifts off in about a year, this will be the only high-energy rocket left in the world,” he said, and will serve “the most important and most important missions, the most unique missions, for national security.”
This approach has been proven through NSSL Phase 2 contracts, he said. “There are a lot of high-energy missions that we are designed for,” he said, such as missions that involve direct injection of payloads into geostationary orbit, which he said will be an increasing share of both the second phase and the next phase. 3 decades.
“We're costing about 34% less on a high-energy mission than on the other mission, SpaceX,” he said. “We placed all our bets nine years ago in the right places.”
He compared Vulcan to “low-energy” rockets, which he said were “over-optimized” for launching spacecraft into low Earth orbit. “Don't be one of those crazy fans who has a favorite Rocket,” he said. “A rocket is an engineering machine that targets a specific mission and is the best at that, but not quite the best at other things.”
However, ULA's largest customer for Vulcan is Amazon's Kuiper Project, the LEO constellation, having accounted for 38 launches representing about half of the current backlog of more than 70 Vulcans. “It was great to sell 38 planes,” he said, especially since Vulcan had not yet flown when the contract was announced in April 2022. The other two spacecraft chosen by Amazon at the time, Ariane Space's Ariane 6 and Blue Origin's New Glenn, had not flown. after. the time.
He did not dwell on the apparent contradiction of Vulcan's reliance on LEO's work, instead emphasizing a diverse statement. “You're not healthy if you're just supporting the government. You've got to have some commercials,” Bruno said. He noted that the share of ULA's business going to U.S. government clients has fallen from 76% before Bruno arrived to 41% today.
“We've transformed. We've shed our skins. We've completely changed the company to become what is needed of us now.” “I'm sure glad we didn't go bankrupt in 2017.”
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